“I was talking to the homeless man outside the bookshop. He didn’t ask for any money. He just chatted”.
“Where’s he from?”
“He’s English; he says he’s been trying to get some work and gets odd jobs, but nothing permanent”.
“Where’s he staying at the moment?”
“At a hostel. He had enough money for that, a well dressed man came and gave him €20 while I was standing there. It’s €7.50 for the hostel. He says the price goes up at busy times. He says it’s €50 on New Year’s Eve”.
“Are you sure? I can’t imagine the hostels change their prices by the season, and certainly not by that much”.
“That’s what he said. It’s a pity he’s living on the streets at all. It’s a pity any of them are”.
In college days in the early-80s, a lecturer would stand in a room, not far from the bookshop door where my son met the homeless man, and urge us to engage with those we met on the streets. He would look up from his notes on the ethics of Saint Matthew’s Gospel and tell us not to be giving people money. “That’s the easy option. Go into a shop and buy them food and then go back to them and talk to them”. Of course, we never did. The conservatives amongst our number would complain that it was the people’s own fault, while the liberals would say it was society’s fault, and no-one on either side of the argument would have talked to the people themselves.
The lecturer was right about not just handing over money. It would have been 50p pieces in those days, or maybe a £1 note, Medb Queen of Connacht, staring out at an Ireland that was unrecognizable. Cash was easier than questions.
But there would always have been questions that were insoluble. Even in times past, in an England where a beggar would have been a rare sight on the streets of any town or city, there would have been people who preferred their own company and being tied to no place – the Gentlemen of the Road would have tramped through landscape of the English shires.
Samuel Beckett’s First Love captures such a spirit in a Dublin past, a man who freely chooses to seek neither permanent roof nor lasting company:
Yes, in the daytime I foraged for food and marked down likely cover. Were you to inquire, as undoubtedly you itch, what I had done with the money my father had left me, the answer would be I had done nothing with it but leave it lie in my pocket. For I knew I would not be always young, and that summer does not last for ever either, nor even autumn, my mean soul told me so.
Michael’s conversation with the man in the bookshop doorway demanded much more than the couple of coins the man might, or might not, have got from me.